The battle for Syria: What does a USyd academic have to do with it?

The war in Syria encompasses two different conflicts: one on the ground, and one for control of the narrative

picture of soldier standing over ruined city The ruins of Aleppo. Image: Bulent Kilic

Syria has been burning for six years.

What reportedly began with a schoolboy’s irreverent, anti-government graffiti in the provincial town of Daraa has transformed into the greatest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century. Some 500,000 lives have been lost, while about 11 million Syrians remain in stateless limbo, trapped between the hostile forces of authoritarian repression, jihadist depravity, and resurgent Islamophobic nationalism. Although the tide appears to be slowly turning towards President Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian Arab army, a return to normalcy appears distant.

For Western audiences, Syria represents the kind of atrocity to which we’ve become desensitised. As reports of civilian casualties flood our newsfeeds and television screens, the default response is often weak platitudes about peace and harmony at best, and resigned indifference to a distant, confusing war at worst.

Yet as the once moderate opposition has been slowly but surely co-opted by violent jihadists, a different battle for Syria has begun to brew far from the frontlines. It is not a battle for territory, but a battle for control over the narrative, fought in newsrooms and comment threads.

The Syrian conflict is a particularly confusing war. All sides are so deeply entangled in the barbarism that, despite the best efforts of trigger-happy neo-cons and tabloid journalists, at times it’s difficult to know who’s who.

The fact that foreign powers have raced in to realise their geopolitical ambitions has only complicated the picture further. In 2013, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was widely mocked for referring to the Syrian War as a situation of “baddies versus baddies”, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. While Abbott’s statement smacked of his characteristic buffoonish ignorance, it epitomises the increasingly confused and frustrated attitude many in the West have towards the Syrian conflict. Once described as a classic struggle of democracy against authoritarianism, this clear dichotomy has slowly given way to a situation more chaotic and complex than we could possibly envisage. At the same time, the way we talk about Syria seems increasingly disconnected from the reality on the ground.

The sheer deluge of information about the conflict can be overwhelming because there is no authoritative source to sort the signal from the noise. Neither the Syrian government nor the numerous groups loosely characterised as the ‘opposition’ allow the free media to access their territory. Consequently, objective sources within the country are incredibly scarce.

The result is a postmodern war in which there is no clearly ascertainable truth. Instead, each of the various groups with a stake in the game — from Assad’s government to the Al-Qaeda affiliated rebels and Turkish-backed proxy forces — operate in their own alternate realities. According to Ruby Hamad, a Fairfax columnist with Alawite heritage, “none of us can know what’s going on . . . not even the people who live there.”

In this context, it is easy to fall back on the familiar. Throughout the early years of the conflict, we were presented with a palatable binary: the Western media, intoxicated by the spirit of the Arab Spring and driven by a need to provide an antagonist, found in Bashar Al-Assad the perfect ‘baddie’.

Looking back, the Western media’s anti-Assad stance makes sense. The conflict broke out following protests calling for democratic reforms and the heavy-handed, repressive response of the government provided the ignition needed to set an already divided and frustrated populace alight. Had the government taken a more explicitly measured, conciliatory approach, the current bloodbath could perhaps have been avoided.

Nonetheless, this story is shrouded in mystery and obfuscation. The extent to which the initial protests in Daraa and Damascus were already infiltrated by Islamist elements eager to overthrow the relatively secular state and replace it with a Sunni theocracy is unclear and hotly contested. As the conflict wore on, those Islamist elements came to dominate the opposition.

Initially, hopes for a democratic Syria were pinned on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a coalition of defected former government soldiers. Yet from relatively early in the conflict, the FSA was plagued by its fractious leadership structures, which saw it lose ground to a steady proliferation of increasingly powerful Islamist groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham.

By 2014, the FSA had ceased to be the dominant anti-government force. Instead, jihadist groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (then known as the Al-Nusra Front), the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State became the dominant forces opposing Assad’s government. The power vacuum in Syria, and the latent religious conservatism of many in the country’s economically depressed rural hinterlands, has provided fertile support for these organisations. Moreover, regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have seen a chance to topple Assad’s relatively hostile government and replace it with a Sunni Islamist regime far more amenable to their own geopolitical interests.

As the opposition became increasingly corrupted by the poisonous influence of Salafist groups and foreign powers, more Syrian civilians began to see Assad’s government as their best hope. According to Jay Tharappel, a political economy tutor at the University of Sydney who is unashamedly pro-Assad, the forces fighting the government are not only more reactionary than the government, but are deeply unpopular within Syria, and therefore heavily reliant on foreign support in order to stay afloat.

Tharappel’s view, once confined to the hard-left fringe, is gaining increasing traction across the mainstream media. Since the government’s recapture of Aleppo, Western publications like The New York Times and The Independent have reported widespread appreciation for the government in the formerly rebel-held city. As far back as 2014, then chief political correspondent of Britain’s Daily Telegraph Peter Oborne wrote that “President Assad could very well win a popular election, even if carried out on a free and fair basis”.

Yet in the age of chemical warfare and subsequent Western mobilisation, the dominant characterisation of the Syrian conflict still reverts to a moral binary, betraying the media’s preference for emotive imagery over inconvenient truths. The narrative of the Arab Spring as a popular uprising to unseat decades-old authoritarian dynasties in Egypt and Tunisia remains appealing to a Western audience, and still informs how we view the conflict. As Hamad puts it, our need for a ‘good and evil’ narrative is hard to discard.

There is perhaps a more sinister reason behind the media’s continued pro-rebel sympathies. Western media sources inevitably absorb and reflect the foreign policy choices and agendas of their governments. The position of the West in the conflict is one of great cynicism. The US pushes for regime change in Syria, indirectly funnelling arms to resistance groups while also fighting against ISIS — both actions intend to foster democracy in the Middle East in contradictory ways.

Yet the security establishment has long been aware of the jihadist influence among the Syrian opposition. CIA documents from 2012 indicate the US was aware that Salafist groups were the most powerful forces in the opposition and that, should the Syrian government fall, an Islamist state would likely form with the backing of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. As long as Western powers adamantly pursue regime change, the loudest voices will continue to be pro-rebel. This paradoxical approach suggests the United States and its allies have not fully learned the lessons of conflicts stretching back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In this context, Hamad argues that many in the media are reluctant to challenge dominant perspectives about the Syrian conflict for fear of being labelled as a pro-regime stooge. The divide between good and evil was determined so early in the conflict that “anything that critiques the ‘good’ side is taken as de facto support for the other side”.

The prevalence of this polarised construction of the Syrian conflict allows for dissenting views to be easily dismissed or vilified. Tharappel and his mentor, University of Sydney academic Tim Anderson, believe that they have faced attacks from across the political spectrum for their pro-Assad stance.

Anderson’s claim that Assad’s forces were not responsible for April’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun saw him lampooned on the front page of The Daily Telegraph. In response, Tharappel lashed out at the journalist, Kylar Loussikian, on Facebook, making demeaning reference to his Armenian heritage.

The University investigated Tharappel for misconduct, a process he only found out about through subsequent Telegraph articles. According to Anderson, Annamarie Jagose, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences “collaborated with The Daily Telegraph” to smear Tharappel over his comments in a “disgraceful” manner. Both Tharappel and Anderson say their vocal support of the Syrian government has placed them under the ever-watchful gaze of a University management eager to avoid controversy.

The manner in which Tharappel and Anderson’s views are expressed, however, often leaves them vulnerable. Many of Anderson’s preferred independent sources are blogs hosted on lo-fi early-2000s era WordPress sites that scream ‘Fake News’. There is a conspiratorial feeling to claims that the chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun this April was a hoax, for example. The hoax argument stands in marked contrast to respectable organisations including Médecins Sans Frontières and The Guardian, who concluded that there was evidence the attack used Sarin gas and was likely attributable to government forces. So long as their arguments are inconsistent with claims in respected mainstream publications, Anderson and Tharappel will struggle to win the battle for public opinion on the Syrian War.

In addition, Tharappel and Anderson face fierce criticism from others on the left. Campus groups such as Solidarity and Socialist Alternative are firmly anti-Assad. Kelton Muir, a USyd student and member of Solidarity, argues that decades of repression under the ruling Baath party and the government’s violent response to Syria’s pro-democratic uprising cannot be glossed over.  In response, Tharappel argues that the failure of left-wing groups to throw their weight behind Assad’s forces is tantamount to support for jihadists. “Syria [to them] is comprised of two types of people, tyrants and victims,” said Tharappel. “So the tyrant is Assad, and anyone who fights against him is basically a victim who needs to be supported”. 

Yet by dismissing these views as mere pro-regime propaganda, we ignore the need for a robust and honest discussion about the situation in Syria. Likewise, the debates that are fracturing the left are not merely a resurrection of outdated Marxist doctrinal disputes and an indulgence of people stuck too far up their trashcans of ideology. Rather, it is only by having these difficult conversations that we can develop a principled response to the crisis that transcends the faux-humanitarian cheerleading of American bombs that is so popular among liberals like Shorten and Clinton. Screaming at our opponents for “supporting genocide” does little to help people understand the war. Nor does it ease the suffering of the Syrian people.

At the same time, we must be wary of any claims of total authority on the conflict. When those of us in the West make absolutist assertions, we crowd out Syrian voices from leading the discussion. According to Hamad, the Western left’s obsession with Syria — a war which they have no personal connection to — is confusing, and often overshadows the experiences of actual Syrians.

Frequently, it seems Syrian voices are not heard in their own right, but instead mobilised by various groups with a stake in the conflict in order to legitimise their own reality.

Tharappel describes a Sunni friend he met in Syria who told him that despite a belief among fellow Sunnis that Alawites are classless and uncouth, Assad is “one of the good ones”, whose popularity has increased exponentially during the war.

Anderson similarly argues that numerous opinion polls show 80 per cent of Syrians support Assad’s government, and he describes the hundreds of friends he has in Syria, all of whom support the government.

Yet the Syrian people are not monolithic. Indeed, ignorance regarding the importance of the region’s ethnic and religious diversity is perhaps the greatest folly of the Western media’s reporting on the conflict. By assuming that each individual Syrian speaks for an entire people, we fall into a quagmire of lazy essentialisms.

It is, however, true that many Syrians now see the government as offering them the best future. According to Hamad, this support is often driven by a resigned pragmatism many Western liberals fail to understand and empathise with. When people look at the actual choice they face — authoritarianism on the one hand and a chaotic, Islamist theocracy on the other — it is understandable that many are drawn to the devil they do know.

Moreover, everyone in Syria has an agenda rooted in their own personal identity. As a person of Alawite heritage, Hamad says many in that community fear extinction in a Sunni-dominated Islamist state that would arise if Assad’s government were to fall. This existential threat is very palpable among Syria’s Shia, Christian and Druze minorities. With widespread reports documenting ISIS and other opposition groups’ medieval approach to religious diversity, from beheadings and mass rape, to using caged Alawite women as human shields, this fear is very real.

On the other hand, many within the Syrian refugee community are understandably far more critical of the government. Hisham Jansis, an 18-year-old Medical Science student at the University of Sydney, fled Homs in 2012. After two years living in a refugee camp in Jordan, Jansis’ family finally made it to Australia. According to Jansis, Assad’s historic repression of free speech and manipulation of sectarian hatred are responsible for the continuation of the conflict. “90 per cent of Syrians oppose the Assad government,” he said. Jansis, like many other refugees, lost family, friends, and a whole past life to Assad’s bombs.

As the war continues and the bodies pile up, all that becomes clearer is just how truly maddening the situation is. What we do know for certain, however, is that Syria wasn’t always like this. When asked about his memories from before the war, Jansis recalls a peaceful and multicultural country where people from different races and religious were able to coexist. This memory makes the descent into violent sectarian hatred that characterises modern Syria seem all the more jarring.

Looking at the situation in Syria now, Jansis tells me that “it’s not a revolution anymore, it’s just a civil war”. Jansis and his family pinned their hopes on the uprising to deliver a better future. But that uprising was swiftly killed off by a vicious and unholy alliance of foreign powers and Salafi ideologues.

Yet in the West we’ve reached saturation point. Longing for simplicity, and unable to process more carnage, we return to familiar narratives of good and evil and in doing so prioritise responding to some atrocities over others.

Just days after the gas attack at Khan Sheikhoun, while Western leaders scrambled to voice their support for American air strikes against Assad, a busload of Shiite villagers fleeing rebel-held territory stopped on a dusty road outside of Aleppo. A man approached them offering sweets for the children. He blew himself up, killing 100 people. Months later, the incident is forgotten, lost among the morbid collage of nightmarish images.

Far from the bombs and the plunder, many in the West struggle to adjust to the unbearable bleakness of Syria’s present reality. Although both sides are implicated in horrific violence, the last disembowelled fragments of Arab Spring idealism have had the perverse effect of lending the jihadists legitimacy.

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